Indonesia – The smile of Sumatra

Author: Alex

Km 13832 – Hobart, Australia

With the ferry we cross from Singapore to Batam and finally to Sumatra, the biggest island of Indonesia. This country is loud, loud and loud and hot and dusty. Never before was I longing so much for a shower after a day of cycling, never before so many people shouted:„Mister, mister, photo, photo!“ The streets are full (a nation of 250 million). Stinking trucks roll slowly over the old asphalt. In the first couple of days the air is polluted very much. The burning season has started and the air burns in the eyes. Rats dive into leftovers on the pavement. It stinks.

And still, this country shines like a star. It shines in every smile, in every positive acclamation, in every human encounter, which encourages us. It is the first time on the whole journey that I have the feeling that people who have been raised in a totally different environment understand what we do. Understand that we want to see the world. Understand that the bicycle is an appropriate mean of transport for that. Permanently we are involved in small conversations. As soon as we stop a couple of curious people would and we can improve our Indonesian.

Kuala Tungkal

In a „hotel“ we are woken up early in the morning by the music of the staff(!). That is Indonesia, too – everybody deaf. No one is bothered by the noise of the others. In the next city, Kota Bumi, we are not lucky either. A relatively expensive hotel is supposed to protect us from the strains of the world. The dirty room isn’t worth the money spent at all and the next morning we are woken up very early again: „Loom Selvice!“ Breakfast – sweet tea with spiced rice as well as noodles and krupuk cookies (no sauce ;). Welcome to Asia, now we are awake.

We try to escape the burning season faster as it would be possible by bicycle. Therefore, we stand at the side of the road to stop a truck. Ika stops on her motorbike „Do you need help?“ „What are you doing?“ Later we sit in her living room and answer the questions of the journalist who would like to write an article about us in the local newspaper. Then the funny part of the whole story: she brings us to the police station, no protests accepted! The police shall help us find a truck to take us to the next city. And it really works: an official stops a truck which is taking us (voluntarily?).

In front of a supermarket (the starved out cyclist body wants chips and ice cream) I get involved in a conversation with Ipul, his wife Melly and his daughter Amanda. After two minutes he invites us to stay the night at his place. We follow the family 2 kilometres to their village. If there has been a „buleh“ (foreigner) in the village before? Probably not, because soon half the village is standing in the living room of the small family. Everyone wants a photo and we patiently stand there and watch people swatch places next to us. In front of us a happy crowd of people with smartphones. At some point there is a power failure and everybody is clapping (as well as the power comes back). Ipul speaks English quite well and translates the sentence of an older woman who is cheerfully staring at us: „…like in TV, but real.“


Again looking for a place to sleep. We eat in a rumah makan, a „house with food“. We humbly ask if we could camp behind the building. No, no, we can sleep in the living room says the cook and mum and gives us a big smile. This smile. So honest, so engaging, so generous. All of the sudden, everything has vanished, the dust, the rubbish, the dirt. What is the secret behind this smile. I don’t know, but it seems as if there is a more direct connection between the heart and the smile muscle here. Some kind of highway for the nerves which can catapult warmth, sympathy and humanity into the outside world with an incredible speed. There is no mask, no question about risks (e.g. like later in Australia: „I have to ask my husband about that first!“).

In contrast to the night before it stays calm. The familial anchor is the TV. The kids fall asleep one after the other in front of the telly. Everyone is up early the next day and sits on the carpet again to watch the screen. Since Jambi, we haven’t slept really well. That’s life. We are still young, although we don’t feel like that in the morning.

And then, something comes along that we usually enjoy a lot. A tiny restaurant at the side of the street, often lead by an older couple. A normal price and an atmosphere that smalls like time and coffee. No „buleh“ calls, no „Misterrrr! Photo, photo!“. We also need a break at times.

Stories that didn’t make it in this blog entry:

  • Spending the night at the fireware brigade (Batam): surprisingly, Jonlok would like to know something about the German reunification. That’s special: usually conversations about our home country start with Hitler, soccer, Merkel or the good economy.

  • At the side of the road, Inas and Isna, two young women, practise Indonesian dialects with us. In Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language) you usually say „nama saya“ (my name is), but in the current region it’s „namoe sayoe“ and in Jambi, people say „namo sayo“.

  • Ghafit, a truck driver, surprisingly drops us of in the middle of nowhere (misunderstanding?). It is dark, but the 18 firefighters of Lahat are happy to have us stay overnight. Welcome and good bye tea and many many photos included.

  • In an internet cafe a young man just comes next to our booth, looks at our screen for several minutes and then comments on the planning of our route.

  • Enough for now! Unfortunately, we cannot report about all events, enthousiastic people and happy faces.

Sumatra! Tiring at times but so lovely as well. We will never forget your smile.

Here you find recent PICTURES and the ROUTE we took (just click on the respective word)!

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